Here's How Group Therapy & Individual Therapy Helped Me Rebuild My Life After Rape

by Melissa Allen
Melissa Allen

I thought I was fine for two years after my rape. In fact, I remember repeating those words — I am fine — even if no one asked. And then one day, after being fine for a very long time, I wasn't. People often think the most painful part about being raped is during the assault. But, for me at least, that was the easy part. I was in so much disbelief that I didn't even get the chance to think about the pain. But afterward, I had a lot of time. I had the rest of my life.

I stand in the middle of a sidewalk as people pass by on either side. I don't know how I got here. I don't remember being on the subway. My body is no longer my own, running on autopilot, placing one foot in front of the other until I arrive at my destination: group therapy for victims of sexual assault.

It’s January in New York and I’m anxious to get inside and out of the cold. It's my first class. But as I near the building, my pulse quickens and my breathing becomes rapid. I feel like I don’t deserve to be here. I feel like I don’t belong. It’s been over two years since my rape, and I thought I would be over it by now — I thought I was over it. My rape wasn’t the kind you typically read about on the news. My rapist wasn’t a masked criminal, but rather, a law enforcement officer with a gun and a badge. My rape wasn’t violent; I willingly went home with him. But I said no, no, no. A thousand times, no...

Melissa Allen

I feel like an imposter as I enter the building, where I’m escorted into a small room with a sofa and chairs. When I started looking for free group therapy programs, I didn’t have high expectations, and so I’m not surprised to find that the walls are bare and the furniture is mismatched. There are only three other women here. Three other rape survivors. Or victims. We get to pick our own descriptor, but we don’t get name tags. We’ve been vetted by two grad students facilitating the program to make sure each of us is compatible with the group as a whole. We’ve each been interviewed twice and signed forms saying we’ll commit to the program in its entirety. I signed because I am desperate. Are they desperate too? We are told smaller groups allow for intimacy. Intimacy with a stranger. That phrase has come full circle for me now.

We silently wait for the session to start, and I feel awkward knowing our shared secret. Here, no one is “fine.” No one is, “Great, how are you?” Here, we are comfortable in our brokenness, and so I put my mask away. The pain in this room is palpable. It must seep through our pores. The therapy facilitators enter and we begin.

Over the course of the next 12 weeks, the four of us save each other’s lives. For two hours every Thursday, we extract the necrotized parts within. We lay them out for comparison, pointing to them and nodding in recognition. Guilt. Anger. Exhaustion. Grief. Some days, we are silent, but even in our silence, we feel understood. Inside these four walls, I am seen. We take turns talking about what happened to us. About what’s still happening to us. We’ve been betrayed. Violated. Our voices have been stifled. We are hurt and angry at everyone. For 12 weeks, we ache and moan. We are not alive but not quite dead. We exist — linked to this world by the single thread of who we once were. Our stories are not identical, yet they are the same. These women aren't strangers. They know my soul.

When it's my turn to tell my story, I'm surprised by how calm I am. I relay the facts. I don't start to cry until I talk about the pain I feel, the aching sadness that presses down on me, the guilt that penetrates my memories, the anger that fills my core and leaks out when I least expect it. When I am finished, I look around the room and find that the others are crying too. Everything we feel, we feel together. I am not alone here. I am understood.

Melissa Allen

On Wednesday mornings, I see my individual therapist — a requirement for participation in group therapy. This will allow me to “process my trauma” separately from the group. My trauma. That’s a nice container for what happened to me. My "trauma” sounds digestible. It’s more efficient than describing what actually happened to me. What’s still happening now. For the next year and a half, I bleed out in her office in 45-minute segments. She tells me I have Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. My physical symptoms are endless, each week my body rejecting another part of itself. Heart palpitations. Chronic migraines. Insomnia. Nightmares. Memory loss. How can one be so sure they are dying and yet still be alive?

A year and a half later, after I've finished my therapy program, I grieve. I grieve the loss of my relationship with those three women who understand me in ways no one else possibly could. They will forever be a part of who I am because they helped me rebuild. And I grieve the loss of my relationship with my therapist who told me week after week that I was fighting a worthy battle, that the work would not be in vain. Is it strange to grieve a place? This physical structure that saw every raw part of me? As I walk away from my therapist's office, I feel like I'm leaving a piece of me behind. Maybe I am.

I write this for A., A., and E. — the women in therapy who saved my life. I owe them everything and yet nothing could be enough.

My PTSD symptoms — my triggers (seeing law enforcement, certain colognes, black SUVs, enclosed spaces); violent nightmares; insomnia — are still present, but they no longer consume me. I will likely deal with them for the rest of my life. I have completed therapy, but I will never forget my rape and I will never forget the pain I endured after. But there is a peace that exists in me now that hadn't been there before. I’m not healed, but I am healing. I wish I could go back and talk to the younger version of myself. Hug that woman who was so brave to seek out help. Squeeze her hand. Wipe her tears. Tell her I’d be there every step of the way.

Trauma therapy was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Processing my assault through therapy was a kind of exorcism. And I was the host, the demon, the priest. Every time I left a session, my spirit felt more free.